I WAS KILLED ON THE INTERNET LIKE A ZOMBIE FROM THE WALKING DEAD
Wagner Schwartz, the artist who performed La Bête at MAM —São Paulo Museum of Modern Art—, speaks for the first time in an exclusive interview about the attacks he was subjected to, in which he was called a “pedophile.”
Back on September 26, 2017, Wagner Schwartz, 45, was an accomplished Brazilian artist. On that day, he opened the 35th Panorama of Brazilian Art at MAM in São Paulo, one of the most prestigious exhibition spaces in Brazil, with his performance named “La Bête” (The Critter) based on the work of Lygia Clark, one of the leading representatives of Brazilian art. Since 2005, Wagner has presented this work ten times, both in Brazil and Europe. This time, as previously the artistic experience happened. For La Bête to happen, the audience must leave its role as a spectator to become a participant. Each performance is different from the others as it is the public that tells the story. This is created collectively by manipulating the artist’s naked body as if it were one of the Lygia Clark’s geometric figures with hinges.
However, in the days that followed, a nightmare began that Wagner had not anticipated.
A fragment of the presentation was posted on the internet igniting a controversy. A woman and her little daughter could be seen playing with the artist’s body during the performance, like so many other people in the public. Then, taken out of its context, the scene was turned into something it was not. And Wagner was called a “pedophile” by millions on the internet.
In search of exposure and voters, unscrupulous politicians recorded videos and made statements condemning both the museum and the artist. Fundamentalist religious leaders mostly attached to neo-Pentecostal evangelical churches, sowed hatred by encouraging their believers to forget the most basic Christian precepts and to condemn the artist and the museum as being “in the service of Satan”. Groups linked with extremist right-wing movements launched protests in front of the museum with the support of angry anonymous people and even assaulted the museum staff. The internet turned into a medieval square where Wagner Schwartz was lynched as a “monster” and a “pedophile”.
The artist had to give testimony for almost three hours in the 4th Police Station for Repression of Pedophilia. An investigation was opened by the Public Prosecution Office of São Paulo to determine whether a crime had been committed. In the Senate, the Parliamentary Committee for Investigation of Ill-Treatment decided to take advantage of these allegations to summon the Museum curators, the mother of the child and the artist to testify.
All at once, Wagner Schwartz was transformed into a criminal. He was not turned into a perpetrator of any crime, but a “pedophile”, one of the most repulsive characters in society. Yet there was no victim, no fact and therefore no offense. At no time did his lynchers of all kinds, bore in mind there was a person involved, with a history, a life, and feelings. That did not matter.
What mattered was the political objectives of manipulating hatred, the most abundant commodity in Brazil nowadays. It is deliberately used to shift public attention from the seriousness of what has been and is happening in the country to a nonexistent threat. The trick is old and used widely in totalitarian regimes, as it was in Nazi Germany. But it seems that there will always be enough people to adhere to the most trivial manipulations. Hatred is known to be dumb.
All of a sudden and very conveniently, the problem was no longer president Michel Temer remaining in power despite all the allegations of corruption, a suitcase of money and compromising conversations. Nor was it the most corrupt Congress in recent history; using public money for personal and private purposes at the blackmail counter that Brasilia has become, or the fact that civil rights earned through the struggle of many people were being quickly erased from the lives of Brazilians, or unemployment and the lack of prospects. No.
Militias of hatred serving themselves and some politicians have created a fiction and millions have forgotten to reason. Instead, they stick to lynching and producing evidence even against themselves. It is worth investigating the objective and subjective paths that have made it possible to convince so many people to believe in such a mediocre quality fiction. An improbable tale as if the problems of Brazil would be pedophiles sheltered in museums and art exhibitions.
The tragedy being that, with the support of a fiction, at least one real victim was created: Wagner Schwartz.
Who will bear responsibility for the irreparable damage done to his life?
Wagner Schwartz received 150 death threats for something invented. He could no longer walk alone in the street. To imagine the effects on him, just do the exercise of putting yourself in his shoes for a few minutes and think about what would happen to your life, as well as that of your family, should it be invented overnight that you committed the crime of pedophilia. Your face visible to everyone on the internet with the most terrible stripe: “pedophile”. It does not take much empathy to imagine the effect of something this kind. And yet, so many have forgotten this essential exercise of humanity and have become protagonists and accomplices of the violence directed at him. Criminal violence.
In the days that followed, they kept inventing. Turning Wagner into a pedophile was not enough. Fake news speculated on his death: for one he had committed suicide, for the other, he was beaten to death. Who can imagine what it is like to read the news of your death on the internet? What does this mean for your family members and relatives? How do you live while so many kill you again and again?
Back in 2005, in Paris, Wagner came across the geometric figures “Bichos” (Critters) of Lygia Clark trapped in a showcase and decided to make a performance of it. As he recalls in this interview, he wanted to release the “critter” invented by the artist, so that the work would come again to being what it was. In September, in Brazil, Wagner discovered what happens when a body challenges conventional mores in a country filled with hatred and fundamentalism, a land of lynchers.
He was brutalized. But he refuses to be submissive, objectified, without a voice. Wagner believes that the most critical answer to attacks is the continuity of his work.
This year, Curitiba Theater Festival proposes reflections on the attacks against art and has invited artists that suffered violence to create a play: Wagner Schwartz; Elisabete Finger, interpreter, and mother of the child who participated in La Bête; Maikon K, an artist arrested in Brasilia during the presentation of DAN DNA when his body was naked; and Renata Carvalho, an actress who was attacked for being a transvestite playing Jesus Christ in a theater play.
The campaign against art and artists has nothing to do with innocence. It came up with a “moral” justification generating popular support aimed at underpinning the reduction of investments in Culture. The cultural sector, historically deprived of financial aid or subsidies, is now in a desperate situation.
The Brazilian country is so dumbstruck that, instead of asking for more investment in culture, part of the population attacks art and artists. Attacks like these are basically symptomatic of the public and their children as well getting more and more narrow-minded. The less investment in art and culture there is, the less access to art and culture —the more distrust and fear of the unknown is generated. The callousness of evil is in full glory in Brazil, thanks to the active collaboration of a portion of the population.
For the first time, Wagner Schwartz, a choreographer living between Paris and São Paulo speaks in this interview about the violence he suffered, violence whose effects are far from over. Between the first questions, sent to him by email, and his first replies two and a half months went by. What has been done to him has had a brutal effect on his life. His body hurts. When he mentions the subject, parts of his body tremble. Each word seems almost to be torn out of him. For someone silenced by being turned into an object of hatred, talking became a painful act. On the eve of this publication, his voice was hoarse, choppy, sometimes faded.
Even so, Wagner has made the effort of the gesture, of believing that it is still possible to live and talk in Brazil today.
How did the performance go live? And what is your relationship with this work of Lygia Clark?
In 2005, I was invited to present my performance Transobjeto, which had its premiere in the old program Rumos Dança Itaú Cultural, in São Paulo, at the Year of Brazil in France, in Paris.
While visiting the art galleries of the French city, I came across one of Lygia Clark's sculptures “Bichos” (Critters) displayed inside a showcase. It was made out of metal, aged by time. It was bigger than my hands. It had about eight flat parts shaped and pointed like shirt collars. In France, the Critters are also called “Bêtes”.
When created in the 1960s, the Critters allowed the articulation of the different parts of its body over its hinges. At exhibitions, they would only perform their function as a work of art when there was public participation. In 2005, when I saw a Critter set aside, I promised to it and myself that I would take its body out of that showcase, so that the relationship between the object and the people would be resumed.
Lygia Clark used to say that a Critter was a living organism, essentially an acting work. Between it and the public, a total, existential integration was established. In their relationship, there was no passivity, neither from the public nor the object. This contact produced a kind of infighting between what she called “two living entities”: The Critter and the person that folds and unfolds it.
The Critters were not designed to be observed, but to be manipulated. Clark considered the action of the public as substantial as her sculptures, because, in fact, this action is an integral part of her sculptures. The moment a Critter is enclosed in a showcase, this action is impossible, a part of the work is ignored, and therefore one part of the Critter is ignored.
Given that, I felt trapped. And I needed to find a way to transform that sensation of being arrested. It would be impossible, however, to “uncage” that sculpture from the showcase, since I could not get an original one. To return its movements back, I thought I should become a Critter myself. I bought a plastic replica and created (the performance) La Bête.
According to Lygia Clark herself, her sculptures have an organic characteristic, the hinges that unite their planes resemble a backbone. When asked how many moves a Critter could make, she would reply, “I do not know, you do not know, but it does.” Clark created a symbolic relationship between the articulations of the object and those of the human body. I imagined that, artistically, it might be interesting to bring this association to life.
In La Bête, I have the replica of a Critter in my hand. I put that replica on the floor. Kneeling, I lay down; I sit beside it. I fold and unfold its ends in silence. After some time, like someone who does not want to continue the maneuver alone, I ask the public, previously only spectators: “Anyone wants to try?”. I then offer my body to the people present, like the replica of a replica of a Critter by Lygia Clark.
Does La Bête only exist if the public participates?
Yes. One person after another comes up on stage. The viewer becomes a participant. In the first few minutes, some test the flexibility of my body. Some believe that it can reach dimensions their bodies do not have. Others see limits. The participants fold me, unfold, shrink and stretch my body. Over time, some believe that they are like me, they take care of me —they massage, they put my body in postures of relaxation, they hug me. Others pose challenges, thinking that they are not like me —they position the critter that I have become in that moment in complex or challenging postures, some let me fall.
For La Bête to be produced, it is essential that those in the gallery or the museum should be willing to rethink the viewer's place. This place is paradoxically impractical in this performance. Some people step in to manipulate the “hinges” of the humanized Critter. Others stand outside and, likewise, act on the operations that take place by making comments about it to each other.
One can also leave the performance. No one is obliged to wait for its completion. And, as the public is making La Bête, people can still propose an end to the action.
La Bête highlights the culture of the other, the different ways of interpreting. After the presentation at the Museum of Modern Art, in the Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo, the performance continued to be articulated and unfolded, but differently from the one that Lygia Clark and I propose. La Bête went outside all artistic spaces and extended, in these other articulations, to show the culture of people who double, unfold and redouble a performance that, in this case, was not even attended at.
Why was the way the "Critter" ended up being unfolded different from what you and Lygia Clark proposed? The attacks against art and the artist, as well as the purport given to them, could not be read as part of the performance? Or unlike another performance of different groups that appropriated La Bête, where a cell phone image that a viewer/participant took was launched on the internet?
Art is a territory out of control, but the fragment of the performance —not the performance itself— detached from our proposal has been recontextualized to articulate conservative ideological banners such as “the Brazilian family” or “our children”. This performative act also exists as an experience, but instead of expanding the relationship of people in the world, it silences it through fear. This performative act does not propose emancipatory images, rather doctrine. It reduces an open concept into a private property belief of a specific group of people.
Do you remember the exact moment when you were touched by the mother and by the girl? How was that moment for you, before it was contaminated?
The performance was coming to an end when I realized that two people were approaching. As my body had been stretched out on the floor by other people, I fixed my gaze on the ceiling of the museum. I first understood that it was Elisabete, a friend whom I had not seen for some time, and her daughter, when they both crossed my field of vision. That moment was, for me, like the rest of the performance.
How did you realize what happened next?
Soon after La Bête's presentation, Elisabete, her husband and I agreed to go to the theater later in the same week. We met and watched a play together. After the show, I approached other friends in the foyer and lost sight of them. As soon as I found them again, I realized that Elisabete's husband was on the phone, looking uneasy. I asked if anything serious had happened. Elisabete then told me that a video containing a cut in which she and her daughter participated in the MAM/São Paulo performance, rapidly went viral on the internet without protecting her face nor her daughter’s. I was devastated. I was worried about the family, about the protection of the child, about the severe problems that arise when a performance is withdrawn from its context and spread massively. I made myself available for whatever they needed.
How did you feel at the time?
We called two taxis. Elisabete and her husband went home. I went to another friend's party. On the way, I noticed from the updates on my smartphone that I was getting a lot of hate messages sent by strangers. In one, they called me a “pedophile”. I closed my eyes. I leaned my head against the seat t. I turned off the phone. My blood pressure dropped. The driver asked if I was okay. I said I would be fine. I met friends at the party and explained to everyone what had happened. They were surprised and assured me that they would get mobilized. I could not stay with them for long. On the subway, I picked up the phone and talked to my family. I got home and locked myself in the bedroom. I opened the computer. By reading the postings, I understood that haters had reported my name and work on social media as threats to their political beliefs and cultural references. They did that knowing nothing about me or my work. They had provoked yet another climax of moral misconception into the debate in Brazil.
The next day, I received the photo of the three children holding hands with me during the final applause for La Bête's presentation at the festival IC Encounter of Arts, 2017, at the Goethe-Institut, in Salvador. Again, another image had been wrenched from its context and used without consent. People who were not at the festival where I performed turned themselves into haters and denounced something they did not know about.
On the internet, I was killed the way the zombies in the series The Walking Dead are killed. Soon after, they said that I had committed suicide —a much-discussed topic in 2017, after the release of another series, 13 Reasons Why. They customized the violence in order to make the intention fabricated in the series via streaming real. They created deaths as real to me as those in movies. They brought off-line life close to fiction.
The blood on the screen looks like it were made of pixels.
What effects did this “assassination” have on the “real” man, in the reality of his body, on Wagner Schwartz?
It was feeling as if I were attending my own funeral. A sense of mourning took hold of my body. I could not be objective in the days following the attacks. My family and friends helped me to make decisions, from the simplest to the most complex: Where to sleep, how to take care of myself. I did not sleep in my house because they might have discovered my address and accomplish the threats that I did not stop receiving. So, I slept every day in a different place.
It is surprising that people could threaten me, but I had no right to any protection. Friends called me crying because they had read about my death on the internet. I spent a lot of time answering messages from everyone who knew me saying that I was alive. I had to, because if I did not answer, they would have believed the fake news. Daily I struggled against this sense of loss and received the most different supports. They asked if I was okay. I answered yes, automatically, because I had to resist, to attribute a new meaning to symbolic death. I’ve been doing this until today. And there is still a lot of work to be done.
Did you feel afraid; do you still feel it?
Fear is something I feel now. I read an article once; I do not remember where, about parents who took their child out of a crocodile's mouth. At the time of the attack, they could not suffer and surrender. Both felt that they had to act, to take the child from the crocodile's mouth. And that's what they have done. In a way, I think that's what happened to me at the end of September. It was necessary to give a wild response to the attacks, so I became an animal to protect myself from the crocodile that was devouring me. My whole body stiffened. I could not speak. Today, fear is my height; it is 6 feet tall. A concern that protects, I need it. But the fear that silences and makes one ill, I will fight.
It took you a long time to start answering my questions. How is it to talk about this?
Precisely, it took me two and a half months to get out of the trauma. Talking in the days close to the attacks was difficult. Words fled, and I still lack them. At this moment, when I know that my speech will be on the internet, in this interview, my real voice fails, it is hoarse. Thus, I have to stop, to go back to my refuge to catch my breath. I need to be quiet so that the air can return to my body until I can react.
What is the difference between what happens in the performance space and what happened in what turned into a viral video on the internet?
The difference is that in the museum it is a performance of about 60 minutes. In the image of a fragment, what exists is a brief clipping that can no longer be called performance. In the copy of a small piece, it is not possible to understand the performance context anymore. A cut, the result of a personal choice, can become authoritarian when it takes the place of all that it does not show.
In the museum, several people watch what is happening on the scene in real time. In the video, someone just presses the enter or play keys on something that is no longer in the performance time. In the photo, you can see only one second taken out of 60 minutes. In the museum, people build together the content of the performance. In the image of a fragment, each person is exposed to something that might have been manipulated in some direction other than the actual live performance.
Conclusion: they associated La Bête with the most horrible of the disorders. In public life, they not only removed my security but also the security of my family, of my friends and of those who were in favor of the performance as the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art and the Goethe-Institut (Salvador, Bahia). I have received 150 death threats from people who are free on the streets, with their profiles active on social media. I also received threats from anonymous robots.
It is necessary to reiterate that in La Bête those who bend and unfold the body of the artist —an artist who must be available to receive the command of the participants— are those who authorize themselves to enter the scene or to speak about it. Participating is a choice, not a condition.
How were these threats? Can you talk about some of them?
I received threats like this: “I will not have mercy if I meet you on the street, you impure and useless dog.” They sent me the photo of a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire containing the following phrase: “If one day you get close to my children...”. There was also someone who wrote: “One day someone will get you, if not the police it will be some real father.” Another: “No use of hiding yourself, you will be found.” Or, “I'm going to hunt you down, and I'll tear you apart. Every part of your body. I'm going to throw them in the streets. Wait for me!”.
These and other hundreds of messages were registered, with their authors, in a police report. They keep coming. I will probably get more threats after this interview is published. All will be reported.
I was also vilified by people who, to remain in their political positions, joined the movement of those who call themselves “the good citizens”. They tried to camouflage themselves under the veil of Christianity. I was born into a Christian family, and I know Christians do not like blood. Those who love blood are the murderers.
There was also an intervention of a Brazilian politician at the National Congress: “I wanted to ask him if he knows human rights. Human rights is a Guatambu wood baton (see: Latin American wood), which we used for many years in police stations. In case he has seen an armadillo tail, we also used it in good times in police stations. If that bum was going to do that show there in the State of Goiás, he would go to be well beaten up on so that he would never want to be an artist again and would never take a shower.”
How did you experience not being called in the media as “the artist Wagner Schwartz” but “the naked man”?
When addressing me as the “naked man” instead of “the artist Wagner Schwartz” or “Wagner Schwartz, the author of La Bête” the performative action disappears, and my existence as an artist fades as well. After all, men usually get naked in the shower, in Berlin parks, on naturist beaches, whereas artists are naked in galleries, museums, theaters.
In this case, should we not wonder why it is so necessary to highlight the nudity in an artwork shown inside a museum?
An example: I do not think anyone refers to Lúcio Costa (see: Brazilian architect best known for his plan for Brasília with Niemeyer) as “the dressed man of Brasilia”, because in this mode of enunciation two essential information —his name and his profession— would be missing, and one would be excessive —he is dressed. Perhaps, for a specific reason, we could suppress his name and say “the architect who designed Brasilia” or “the architect who designed the Brasilia Pilot Plan”. In this formulation, it would be possible to know who we are talking about and, for those who do not have the reference, a Google search would do the job. But if I say “the dressed man in Brasilia”, since it is not a question of enunciating the person, but rather the person who exists in his work, we would not reach Lúcio Costa.
Hence, the phrase “the naked man of MAM” can create distorted images of what happened at the opening of the exhibition. To say “a man was naked in a museum and was touched by a child” is very different from saying “an artist, while doing his performance, was touched by a child”. The first sentence can generate fear, repudiation. The second can produce curiosity —after all, it is one of the attributes of art. Materializing the person-work connection shoves the fantasies away.
Do you think there was a manipulation of your performance to be used in this troubled political moment in Brazil?
In Brazil, many artists have been nominated as “pedophiles” by deceitful politicians and by those who follow them. In an article published on the blog Le Club de Mediapart, Tania Alice, Gilson Motta and Karel Vanhaesbrouck wrote about this: “The most effective way to cut art funding and to obtain moral support from the population is the systematic defamation of the artist, portrayed as the usurper, as someone who gets rich through public money. If the artist is accused of all evils, this suppresses the already rare private and government art subsidies, with the support of the population.”
When linking a dramatic action to incitement to pedophilia, the performance is hooked up so that the disorder loses its real meaning. This inversion is the most significant danger to society. Pedophilia is a sick, dangerous word that should not become an artist's nickname or an internet's même. Pedophilia is a disease that could not possibly be treated by people trying to close museums, assaulting their staff, and much less manipulating images and distributing them deliberately.
How did the attacks against you change your life?
The episode La Bête approached, symbolically, the pororoca phenomenon (see: tidal bore of the Amazon river). On the one hand, a stream of distorted information repeated in chorus by a lot of people driven by trolls and robots. On the other side, people who have had the opportunity to build an image of themselves and of the other person where both have space to exist. At this tidal waters’ meeting, there was my personal life. Meanwhile, a strange force was there ensuring my sanity, as Caetano Veloso and Louise Bourgeois have taught me.
On the following week after the attacks, I attended the scenic experiment Paris is burning, directed by Leonardo Moreira, and the play Nós (“Us”) by Grupo Galpão, directed by Marcio Abreu, at Sesc Pompeia. I was at the opening of the exhibition Uprisings, at Sesc Pinheiros, at the launch of the book Fabulations of the Japanese Body, by Christine Greiner, in the Casa Líquida. I watched the release of the album Momento íntimo, by the band Porcas Borboletas, at Itaú Cultural, as well as the show Caetano, Moreno, Zeca and Tom Veloso at Theatro NET São Paulo. In each of these events, I felt like my spontaneity had been violated. I could only find this quality again in those relations if I continued to visit art spaces and to persist in the creation of my projects.
“But where the danger is, also grows the saving power”, wrote the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin. It was like trying to clean the house with an earthquake outside, being supported by friends and strangers, who quickly gained the relevance of friends.
Many of them offered me a house in Brazil and abroad. Lawyers, curators, politicians, doctors offered me protection. Many artists of the music, visual arts, theater, literature, cinema, TV, fashion, philosophers have published essential reflections on La Bête. Others, like YouTubers, have made videos. Dance professionals have supported me through social media, universities, open letters. Producers got in touch.
I was not alone. That's what everyone was saying. So, I cannot say that “I” was devastated, but rather that “we” were wary. We are cautious.
How do you connect what happened to you with the current moment in time in Brazil (and in the world)?
I live in Brazil and Europe. In both places, I see similar strategies to constrain artists, feminists, the black movement, the LGBTQIA+ community (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual / Arromantiques / Agnostic, Pan / Poli and more). And also, strategies to embarrass those who are not represented by a conservative and authoritarian policy. These strategies are part of an oppressive culture that does not depend on the spoken languages. They are the same here and there and have been taught for years in many schools, families, in social life. They have tradition.
When moral discourse replaces political discourse, it finds a strong resonance in the distortions of religiosity. Moralizing discussion helps people to act and think in the same way. Then it encourages people to shout the same deceptive phrases in various languages: “They want to destroy the family”, “vilify religious symbols”, “artists are degenerate”.
Languages might be different, but the actions are alike in the effects they produce. What changes, perhaps, is the way justice operates today in the different places and the number of people engaged in the repetition of such atrocities.
How do attacks on art and artists affect society as a whole?
Numerous movements have taken shape in Brazil since September 2017. The people involved in them understand that the loss of rights —civil, inventive— generates a spectrum in the lives of those who write, sing, dance, act, paint and carve out the contexts of the world. It also affects the lives of those who think, act, identify with other forms of life different from those idealized by the moralizing chorus.
The risk of losing civil rights is not restricted only to the authors of the performances or to the artists of the exhibitions attacked in Brazil in 2017. It is not possible to be politically timid or to believe that there are people who will not be affected by obscurantist manifestations. What exists is ignorance. And this, yes, in any area, is what needs to be destabilized.
How does this affect democracy?
In moralizing discourse, there is no concern for democracy. Those who are not part of the flock must be separated from the crowd, and, to this end, acts of violence are where they should never be.
This evil must be disenchanted. A countervailing standard based on sobering actions must be promoted, such as problematizing the circumstances of our criticism and giving recognition to contexts to the detriment of slander. One must be committed to others to prevent, by all means, the collective suffering caused by a false accusation. Yes, it is necessary to be committed to others.
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Eliane Brum is a writer, reporter and documentary filmmaker. Author of the non-fiction books Coluna Prestes —o Avesso da Lenda, A Vida Que Ninguém vê, O Olho da Rua, A Menina Quebrada, Meus Desacontecimentos, and the romance Uma Duas.
Website: desacontecimentos.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter: @ brumelianebrum / Facebook: @brumelianebrum